Parenting can seem impossible when you’re depressed. The agreement among mental health professionals and parents who have raised their children while experiencing emotions of hopelessness and despair is that help is available, and the sooner you obtain it, the better your family’s quality of life will be.
When Maddie was unmarried and in her early 20s, she started to feel extreme exhaustion and a lack of desire, along with “a subtle undercurrent of grief that would flare up for months at a time but was never so debilitating that I couldn’t get out of bed.” (Her name has been changed, along with the names of the other parents quoted in this article, due to the sensitivity of the topic.) In her mind, unfavorable ideas with themes of uneasiness and abandonment anxiety kept repeating. For instance, she would hear a voice in her brain remark, “Of course they didn’t invite you; you’re boring and unpleasant,” after viewing an Instagram photo of pals having a fun night out.
the teacher from Seattle was 29 years old and her older daughter was
A 2009 study found that more than 15 million children lived with a parent who was severely depressed, a figure that’s likely higher today—especially given the life-upending events of the past year. During the pandemic, 49 percent of women with children under age 18 and 40 percent of dads with children of the same age have reported that their mental health has suffered due to coronavirus-related stress, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says rates of depression in adults are up fourfold since 2019.
Long-simmering issues of racism, social unrest, and political turmoil also reached a boiling point in 2020, fueling a spike in mental-health conditions among people of color. “We were already dealing with virtual learning, the stress of making sure my kids always have their masks on, they need to eat 90 times a day, and then I had to talk with my 12-year-old about why people were protesting,” says Catina Smith, 35, a Black Air Force veteran, private chef, and mom of three in Baltimore.
But even in these challenging times, and even if feelings of fear, sadness, and worthlessness seem insurmountable, there is still hope. We live in a golden age of mental-health treatment, and there are numerous forms of therapy, dozens of medication options, and much less of a stigma associated with mental-health problems. Once, these disorders were considered shameful secrets; now public conversations about parental mental health occur regularly. Actor Kristen Bell, Untamed author Glennon Doyle, and Olympian Michael Phelps have all spoken publicly about the challenges of parenting with anxiety and depression. Perhaps most notably, Meghan Markle revealed in March that she had suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts during her first pregnancy.
In other words, there has never been a more accepting atmosphere for those who find it difficult to manage their mood. If you’re among them, health experts want you to know this: Help is available, and it can make a difference in your life and that of your family.
What Depression Is and Isn’t
Of course, it’s hard to seek treatment if you’re not sure what it is that you’re experiencing. Both depression and anxiety—which may occur in tandem—can show up as irritability, forgetfulness, and anger. And although rage has long been ascribed to men, it can signal that a mom feels unheard and overburdened, her needs are not being fulfilled, and an underlying mood disorder may be brewing, says Sarah Oreck, M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist and mom in Los Angeles.
The National Institute of Mental Health uses the terms clinical depression and major depressive disorder interchangeably to refer to a severely low mood that persists for an extended period. (If the depression is chronic, it’s referred to as persistent depressive disorder, or dysthymia.) These disorders go beyond feeling overwhelmed or having “the blues,” causing what experts term functional impairment, meaning a person is unable to parent, work, or go about the day as they once did. This impairment can arise when certain risk factors—genetic predisposition, personality, brain chemistry, a history of mental-health issues, or adverse life events—converge, explains Dr. Smith. In the case of postpartum depression, which afflicts roughly one in four new moms in the three years after they give birth, it can erupt from “hormonal changes, sleep deprivation, and the burden of caring for a baby’s every need,” Dr. Oreck says.
It’s imperative that parents who suffer from depression and anxiety seek help for managing their symptoms. Emma, 39, a mom of one in New Jersey, has been in treatment for several years. First diagnosed with depression in college, she suffered from suicidal thoughts in her early 30s. Now she combines weekly therapy with mood-stabilizing medications and says she can’t imagine parenting without them. “Depression can make minor setbacks feel like all is lost,” says Emma, “and that’s a real problem, since parenthood is full of minor setbacks.”
Parenting is more demanding than being a neurosurgeon or an airline pilot. Dr. Smith, a mother of two children, aged 9 and 12, says, “You’re a full-time caretaker, not only providing material pleasures like food and clothing but also being responsible for nurturing and building strong emotional relationships with your child.”
Despite the fact that parents generally report having a stronger sense of purpose, having children can undoubtedly lead to more stress, worry, and other unpleasant feelings than being a nonparent. Family holiday cards, however, never feature images of a mother crying in the toilet as her children construct a fort out of pillows. Millions of depressive parents experience a sense of helplessness and isolation due to the “triple danger of guilt, perfectionism, and martyr mode,” while in reality,
The Effects on Children
For parents with depression, there are the obvious detrimental symptoms—emotional pain, lack of motivation, loss of joy in once-joyful activities—and even physical troubles such as gastrointestinal distress and reduced immunity. But research has found that children of depressed parents are about three times as likely to suffer from major depression, anxiety disorders, or substance abuse as children whose parents hadn’t been depressed.
All kids have developmental needs that include feeling securely attached to a safe, caring adult and having a caregiver who is both physically and emotionally present and can model adequate coping mechanisms, says LaToya Gaines, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and former school psychologist in New York City. Untreated mental-health concerns can threaten a parent’s ability to fulfill these needs. “When we’re depressed, we have difficulty connecting,” says Kristen Granchalek, LCSW, a Chicago-based therapist specializing in women’s issues, anxiety, and emotional reactivity. “Our faces don’t respond in a way that mirrors our children’s emotions, which they need for healthy development and to feel cared for.” With anxiety, kids can absorb their parent’s chronic worrying and, says Granchalek, “internalize the belief that the world is not okay.”
Emma, the mom in New Jersey, says it’s the fear of this very dynamic that frightens her most. For instance, whereas a nondepressed parent might be annoyed at their toddler’s disinterest in potty training, Emma considers it a failure on her part and silently ruminates over her son’s doomed future, including worries that he’ll get kicked out of preschool for being the only 3-year-old still in diapers. “My husband will assure me that our son will get it eventually; meanwhile, I’m pasting on a smile and suppressing a volcano of panic.”
The potential effects of a parent’s depression on their child make treatment imperative—and extensive research shows that clinical depression is highly responsive to treatment. But in the best-case scenario, only about half of depressed adults receive proper care, says Dr. Smith, and “rates for mothers may be even lower.” Part of the issue is what Granchalek says is a deep societal discomfort around mothers admitting they need help with anything: “We spend a lot of emotional labor convincing ourselves that ‘I’m lazy and I should be doing a better job,’ or we blame our partner or children, thinking that if they were more helpful or better behaved, we wouldn’t be struggling so much.”
This kind of thinking weighs heavily on Black mothers, Dr. Gaines says, “who are taught to think about everyone else first, going back to when we were enslaved and had to take care of our family as well as other peoples’ families. Many Black women feel we have to be on it all day, every day, because if we don’t do it, who will?”
And for all depressed parents, there are the twin barriers of little time and low energy. It can feel impossible to carve out an hour a week for therapy when there’s barely time to shower, and when parenting and depression are both known to cause exhaustion.
The first step in recovery is believing that mental illness is a health concern like any other—there’s no shame in having anxiety or depression, just as there’s no shame in having lupus or the flu, Dr. Gaines says. Next, it’s helpful to have an honest conversation to assess whether your daily battles are more than just a rough patch or stress. An objective, empathetic partner, friend, or relative can serve as a sounding board, as can a primary care physician, who can help plan next steps, including making a referral to a mental-health expert.
Therapy is a safe space for venting and helps address damaging beliefs, like “I’m worthless” or “My kids would be better off without me,” says Dr. Gaines. Talk therapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy or an offshoot called acceptance and commitment therapy, can challenge such thoughts and reframe them as “It’s a pandemic, and I’m doing the best I can.”
Therapy has been transformative for Andy, who says that treating his depression with the help of a therapist who had walked in his shoes (in his case, another gay father) has helped him “unpack what is normal parenting angst versus what might be something more serious.” At first, he says, therapy almost felt selfish, with so much laundry to be folded and dinner to be made. “I had to have a heart-to-heart with myself, saying, ‘This isn’t like getting a facial; this will help you and help the kids so you’re not taking your anxiety out on them.'”
For many, medication is also helpful. And given how many kinds are now available, those seeking care can be assured that if one doesn’t help or causes unpleasant side effects, there are other doses and drugs to try. The most common class of medications, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs (Prozac and Lexapro are examples), also treat anxiety, and an internist or an ob-gyn as well as a psychiatrist can prescribe them.
Some people worry that taking an antidepressant will change their personality, but it actually makes the patient feel more like themself. Medication won’t eliminate all negative thoughts, but it will likely make a person’s mood more stable, lifting their outlook out of despair and nudging it closer to neutral. “A psychiatrist prescribed Prozac for my depression, and a few weeks later I was walking the dog, and I saw the sun setting and thought, ‘That’s pretty,'” says Danielle, a 41-year-old mom of two in Illinois. Her desire to read and bake with her girls—activities she adored before her depression set in—also returned. Both were encouraging signs that her depression was finally lifting.
Protecting Your Child
Having depression or anxiety does not necessarily guarantee your children will experience these emotions, according to Dr. Smith. Early discussion of feelings will increase the likelihood that they will seek assistance if they do. Sharing your struggles with your children in an age-appropriate manner will help them learn that all emotions are normal, there are positive ways to deal with unpleasant ones, and it’s acceptable to ask for help. This is an important step in reducing the risk factors that are genetic and environmental.
Dr. Gaines advises uttering, “Today, Mommy is depressed, and that’s okay. Everybody has bad days. However, I am aware of a few things I can do to improve my mood.” This conversation also addresses rage, worry, and irritation.
How can I be a good mom when I have anxiety?
Being a Parent When You Have Anxiety
- Accept your boundaries and limitations. I learned I needed to set my limits. …
- Find your peace. My kids are loud. …
- Include your partner. …
- Take medication if you need to. …
- Allow others to help you. …
- Allotting yourself grace. …
- Have animals around. …
- Accept your bad anxiety days.
Is it normal to not enjoy being a parent?
It is acceptable to occasionally get irritated by parenting and your children. However, certain people are more likely than others to find it difficult to enjoy parenthood, starting with anyone who is predisposed to sadness and anxiety, according to Pearlman.